Navy Leaders Left Out of Talks to Cut Shipbuilding, Move Funds to Pay for Border Wall

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Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies during a hearing of the SASC.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies during a hearing of the SASC about about reports of substandard housing conditions Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 in Washington, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Navy Department's top civilian and uniformed leaders said they weren't consulted about billions being pulled out of military funds to pay for new barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border and learned they'd face big cuts to 2021 shipbuilding projects at the last minute in the budget-making process.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger all told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that they weren't consulted before $3.8 billion was moved out of defense budgets to pay for the Trump administration's border wall project.

The money raided from Pentagon accounts will cut a pair of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, two MV-22 Ospreys and four KC-130 Hercules from the Marine Corps. It'll also cost the Navy a P-8 Poseidon and nearly $1 billion in funding for a new amphibious assault ship and expeditionary fast-transport ship.

Modly and Gilday also said they learned about massive cuts to the Navy's shipbuilding plan, which ultimately scrapped plans for a second Virginia-class submarine in 2021, in the final moments leading up to President Donald Trump's budget plan rollout.

Related: Lawmakers Warn Pentagon Chief of Future 'Brawl' over Murky Shipbuilding Plan

"That happened at budget endgame very quickly, and we were informed after the decision was made," the CNO said.

The new details indicate the Navy could be caught in the crosshairs between a congressional push to build up to a 355-ship fleet and an administration with other immediate spending priorities. Defense Secretary Mark Esper faced scrutiny from members of Congress on Wednesday over what they said is an unclear path toward a 355-ship Navy.

Lawmakers called the Navy's 2021 shipbuilding plan "anemic" and said it doesn't match the Pentagon's own National Defense Strategy, which calls for maritime might amid threats from China and Russia.

"You are heading for a major brawl with this committee," Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, told Esper. "The law is quite clear. When you submit your budget, you are required to submit the shipbuilding plan and for you to say you are going to give it to us on your own good time and when you are ready -- you are not in line with the law."

The Navy's 2021 budget request laid out plans to buy 44 ships over the next five years. This time last year, the Navy planned to have 55 new hulls by 2024.

Modly said he and Gilday knew the White House was looking at a variety of options when it came to shipbuilding funds for 2021.

"Then at the end, those options were presented to us," the acting Navy secretary said. "Ultimately, we don't have a veto."

When asked about the administration's decision to pull additional funds away from the Navy Department to pay for border wall efforts, Modly replied that it's "not helpful."

"It takes a ship out of a plan that we're driving toward," he said.

Modly said he remains committed to the 355-ship Navy and believes it's still possible to reach it, despite potential cuts to next year's shipbuilding budget.

"The size of the fleet is growing," he said. "It's just not growing at the pace that some would prefer."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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